Traumatic Abuse in Cults



ICSA – Founded 1979


Traumatic Abuse in Cults: A Psychoanalytic Perspective


Daniel Shaw, C.S.W.
Psychoanalyst in Private Practice
New York City


Abstract (excerpt)


Using his own ten-year experience in Siddha Yoga under the leadership of Gurumayi, the author presents psychoanalytic conceptualizations of narcissism in an effort to develop a way of understanding cult leaders and their followers, and especially of traumatic abuse in cults from the follower’s perspective. A psychoanalytically informed treatment approach for working with recovering cult followers is proposed, consisting of providing: 1) an understanding of the leader’s extreme dependence on the follower’s submission and psychological enslavement; 2) a clear, firm, and detailed understanding of the leader’s abusiveness; and 3) an exploration of normative and/or traumatic developmental issues for the follower, as part of a process of making sense of and giving meaning to the follower’s experience.


When I began graduate school in social work in September of 1994, it had been just two years since I moved out of the spiritual community, the ashram, I had lived and worked in for more than 10 years, up until my 40th birthday. In those two post-ashram years, while still considering myself devoted to the guru and the spiritual path I had chosen, I did a good deal of soul searching, much of it through the process of psychotherapy. One of the uses I made of psychotherapy was to explore my career options, and I eventually chose to seek the necessary education and training to become a psychotherapist myself. In my first social work field placement, many of the clients I was assigned described terrible histories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in childhood, and in some cases were involved in ongoing abuse, either as perpetrators or victims. Many of these clients were struggling to recover from devastating addictions. Although my own life has been something of a bed of roses in comparison with the suffering these clients have known, I soon discovered I had a deeper connection to their experiences than I at first realized.




Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation, by Daniel Shaw


From Chapter 3 – Traumatic Narcissism in Cults


    In the two years prior to the publication of the article that I had spent living and working back in New York City, I had slowly and painfully begun to acknowledge to myself, my therapist, and my wife, herself a member of the group at that time (but no longer), that there were aspects of Shakti Yoga and its leaders that I found unethical and disturbing. In particular, I had personally experienced and also frequently witnessed Guruji verbally and emotionally abusing her followers – publicly shaming those with whom she was displeased in cruel and humiliating ways. I had heard her tell blatant lies and witnessed her deliberately deceiving others she wished to embarrass or harass, expressing pleasure in doing so. I witnessed her condoning and encouraging illegal and unethical business and labor practices, such as smuggling gold and U.S. dollars in and out of India, and exploiting workers without providing adequate housing, food, health care, or social security. I was aware that for many years, Guruji, and her predecessor, Sri Babaji (a fictionalized name), had been using spies, hidden cameras, and microphones to gather information about followers in the ashram, which was then used to embarrass them, often publicly.


All of these behaviors were well known to those of us on the staff of the organization, but were much less familiar to the thousands of followers who did not live and work there in direct contact with Guruji. Staff members such as myself considered ourselves privileged to be exposed to the more private persona of Guruji, whose typical cruelty to and micro-control of her staff and many “special,” (i.e., wealthy) followers, along with her expectation that no amount of money was too much to be spent on her, was always understood as “crazy wisdom,” a term that refers to and celebrates the eccentric, mind-blowing, and paradoxical behaviors of spiritual leaders in various Eastern traditions. Aggression, greed, sexual predation, and other forms of cruelty are often among these behaviors in the stories of such leaders, who are understood to be, contrary to appearances, benignly breaking down the boundaries and defenses of followers, “liberating” them from their small, petty, unenlightened egos. Even revered spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama and Pema Chodron have been made fully aware of the sexual abuses of leaders in their Buddhist tradition, and airily dismissed abusive sexual predation by these so-called realized masters, such as Sogya and Trungpa Rinpoche, as trivial.


    Ghent (1990) made an astute distinction between surrender and submission. He conceptualized surrender as a letting go of defenses, and an opening to the possibility of the sublime, both as internal state and as interpersonal experience, whereas he understood submission as the dehumanizing, sadomasochistic perversion of surrender. Although I was not aware of Ghent’s work until some time after leaving Shakti Yoga, I was beginning to formulate similar ideas. I began to be aware that I had been deceived, and had deceived myself, in a classic bait and switch operation – the bait being surrender, the switch being masochistic submission to a cruel and controlling, yet idealized, leader.


    Of all the dissociating I had been doing, to me the most shameful was that in order to continue to convince myself that I was making the best possible choices by devoting myself to Shakti Yoga, I suppressed my awareness of stories of sexual abuse in the ashram, stories it would be absolutely heretical to even mention to another follower. I had heard rumors that contrary to his claims of celibacy and renunciation, the predecessor guru, Sri Babaji, had up until his death in his seventies been relentless in sexually preying upon female followers, many of them girls who were not of legal age. When some followers exposed him publicly, he lied and attempted to cover up the scandal with threats of violence to the whisteblowers, threats made by Sri Babaji himself and by deputies he appointed and dispatched himself – one a former pro-footballer, the other a former Vietnam combat veteran.


    I had deliberately chosen to disbelieve and deny this information, though a deeply buried part of me had kept mental notes on many whispers and hints. Later, after I severed all ties with Shakti Yoga in 1994, I came to learn of far more extensive sexual abuse of young girls as well as adult women, several of whom I met and spoke with. Without knowing each other, the women reported exactly similar details: a secret room with a specially built table, which allowed Sri Babaji, then in his seventies, to stand while he raped them. I will spare the reader further, more specific details that all of these women who spoke out, again without access to each others’ accounts, described. Guruji has continued to deny and cover up this aspect of her predecessor’s behavior to this day. I also learned that many of the parents of the young girls whom Sri Babaji had molested had been proud that their daughters were “chosen,” as though for a special, divine ritual. I knew some of these people well: before coming to live full-time in the ashram, one of the parents had been an Ivy League professor; another a once-prominent psychoanalyst. After Sri Babaji’s death, Guruji continued to defend and financially support the male leader who had abused the young woman I knew, who was also preying upon dozens of other women, many of them minors.


    All my dissociated knowledge suddenly and dramatically broke fully into consciousness when I heard the story of the young woman I knew; I literally felt my body become enlivened, and could physically feel my mind – brain? – expanding, opening. In the phrase, “Don’t ever tell anyone about this, especially not your mother,” I heard a chilling echo of the voice of the incestuous father, the battering husband, the sexual harasser, the rapist. As Judith Herman says, in her seminal work Trauma and Recovery (1992), “secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense” (p. 8). It was hearing these words, “Don’t ever tell,” that broke for me what Ernest Becker (1973) has called “the spell cast by persons – the nexus of unfreedom.” I recognized in Guruji’s behavior toward her followers the hallmarks of abuse: the use of power to intimidate, seduce, coerce, belittle, and humiliate others – not to strengthen, uplift, and enlighten, as advertised, but for the more base purposes of psychological enslavement and parasitic exploitation.


    It should be noted that Shakti Yoga resembles in many ways a mainstream Hindu religion. In the U.S. and other major world capitals, it was successfully marketed to a population of highly educated, affluent professionals, and included quite a few internationally known celebrities in business, the arts, and in journalism. Once I had spoken out publicly about Shakti Yoga, in the early days of the internet, I was instantly, literally within hours, persona non grata in the community, so that the dozens of people I thought of as friends, and the hundreds of others from all over the world that were friendly acquaintances, immediately cut me off completely. Fortunately, there were enough members who left the community when I did for us to form an internet support group. I also began to attend conferences organized by what is now the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), where I have met hundreds of people over the years who identify either as having been in an abusive, authoritarian group, or who were concerned for loved ones in such groups.


    At the first of these conferences I attended, I asked a cult expert there if he thought that people who become involved in these groups had some common psychological traits. His answer was a definite “no!” which surprised me, because I was pretty sure that there were. It seemed obvious to me at this point that for many if not most of the people I knew who became involved in this kind of group, the cult leader was like an idealized parental figure, and the group like an idealized family. Affiliating with the group, for many, was at least in part an attempt to compensate for some sense of lack in one’s family of origin. At that time, however, this understanding was thought of as a form of blaming the victim. The line of thinking then, in 1994, about people who got into cults, was that cult followers were the victims of charismatic con artists who used “mind control” techniques, as defined by Robert Jay Lifton (1961) and by Singer and Lalich (1995), to entrap and control followers (see Appendix A at the end of this chapter). These techniques were essentially those identified by Lifton as used by Chinese Communists in prison camps. Those who got into cults, according to the thinking at this time, were people who just happened to be unlucky enough to get sucked in and exposed to mind control, also known as thought reform. Although I in fact recognized every one of Lifton’s mind control techniques as integral to the authoritarian culture of the group I had been in, I was convinced that there was more to it than that, more than just accidental exposure to undue influence (Cialdini, 2008). I was convinced as well that my ex-guru had not studied the thought reform techniques of the Chinese Communists, but rather that these behaviors came naturally to her, and others like her, based on certain aspects of character shared by charismatic, authoritarian leaders.